The Ganga and the ghats

The burning ghats from the Ganges river
We had been wanting to see Varanasi since our brief transit through its outskirts on the way to the Institute from the airport. One afternoon, finding ourselves free, we decided to take the plunge and go into town. Asking someone how to do something or go somewhere in India often means that they will show you, or take you there themselves, and so while we were just trying to gather information by asking Lakdhor how to get to Varanasi, what ended up happening was that Neema, one of our translators, "volunteered" to accompany us. What made us a little concerned is that two of the translators, Neema included, seemed to feel that Varanasi was "crazy", and told us they didn't really like going there because it was too chaotic. This, coming from a guy who lives in India, and lived four years in Chennai (Mumbai), a much bigger town, was disconcerting. No less, we decided to go.
Auto-rickshow ride
As always, the sights and sounds begin with the ride there. The way to go is by auto-rickshaw: they sit three Westerners in the back (Indians manage to squeeze in unbelievable numbers of people, however), and so Neema shared the front seat with the driver. It's very difficult to give a sense of what traffic is like: a series of close shaves with other vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows, a constant honking of the horn to alert other travelers of your presence, a racing spirit that compels drivers to try to pass the rickshaw in front of them, and thousands upon thousands of people, all going somewhere to do something.

Streets of VaranasiThis is what it's like when there's no trafficGathering water
School boysTubingMacroMan
Lift with your knees?

After a harrowing and fun 30 minutes, we had to get off the rickshaw: traffic became so intense that motorized vehicles didn't have a chance anymore. We switched to a human-powered rickshaw, which took us a little further, and then we started walking. As soon as we turned into one of the labyrinthine side streets, the feeling changed drastically. Most of the traffic was on foot, and the houses are small and crowded against each other, and open to the street, whether it was to sell something or just offer a window onto the world.

Tree house
Temple or phone booth?

We had to ask for directions a few times, receiving contradictory information, and took a couple of wrong turns (remember, this is with a Hindi-speaking guide!), but eventually we found our destination: the burning ghats.

Wood for the pyresBurning ghats

Hindus believe Varanasi to be a holy city, and if one dies here, is burned on the banks of the Ganges, and has their ashes thrown in the river, they will escape samsara, the cycle of rebirth and worldly suffering, to go directly to Nirvana. The burning ghats (steps) are were the cremation ceremonies take place. Between 200 and 300 people are cremated daily here in Varanasi. This was also the


place in Varanasi where we saw other westerners. We decided to take a boat ride along the Ganga (this is what the Ganges is called here), and we were told a few instructional tales by our colorful guide.

Our guideOur rower

There are five types of people who are not cremated, but are thrown directly into the river: pregnant women; children under 10; holy men; in all three cases it's because the children, or holy men, are already almost pure. Also, people who die of cobra snake bite, as the cobra is associated with Lord Shiva, and to die of its bite is considered a blessing from the god. Finally, people who die of small pox, for reasons that escape me. The ride along the river was lovely, and the sights unforgettable.

A tree full of kites
On the roofs of VaranasiOn the GangaThe sinking templeSunset on the Ganga

Back on solid ground, our guide took us to his favorite temple, which is underground, three stories deep. Visitors can look down into a well and see the statue of a bull, next to the symbol for Mother Parvati. On the way back to the auto-rickshaw, he helpfully led us to his relative's silk shop (located inside his house, of course), just in case we hadn't realized that we might want to take a look at some fabrics, maybe a pashmina or two. He was very dismayed at the possibility that we were not interested, but we eventually managed to extricate ourselves from there and make our way back to Sarnath.

Roadside GaneshaCows parkingUnderground temple


Thoughts on a design-based activity

Discussing and problem-solving
One of our goals for presenting the automata activity was to encourage the workshop participants to construct their own understanding about mechanisms by first observing motion machine models, then discussing their ideas about the ways they worked, and ultimately, building their own automata in their unique way. Although the group was eager to discuss (and argue) their ideas about the inner workings of the mechanisms, they were a bit tentative when they started to construct. Their ideas and initial thoughts were challenged, and ultimately strengthened as they completed their models.

Karen facilitating
Prayer wheel: lashing detail

Many commented on this activity during the discussion session (roughly translated):

"What I thought of in my mind and in reality were two different things

[when making their own mechanisms].

What I imagined worked perfectly, but was harder to build things perfectly."

        - Ngawang Lobsang

"I was reminded of the inner workings of a water pump from when I was younger in Tibet."

        - several participants mentioned this

"When we started, the mechanisms looked strange, but opening them up made us focus on how they worked even more."

        - Kalsang Gyatsen

"One thing influenced another thing's movement, and so on. I did not realize this fully until I tried it."

        - Geshe Nyima

"In Buddhism we say that the creativity in each person is different because of the experiences from a previous life."

        - Geshe Yeshi

"This workshop is very different from the others, because in this one the responsibility

[for the learning]

is on us. This is very good."

        - Geshe Nyima

Mike helping construction
Geshe Nyima working at his automata
Luigi with Geshe Yeshi

Tashi working at his amazing prayer wheel
Four cams, two followers


Cardboard automata workshop

Peeking into the box
We started the first workshop by giving the monks a challenge: we divided them into groups of 6, and gave them an example of cardboard automata movement, but we covered up the mechanism that made that movement possible. We instructed the monks to observe and notice as many things as possible about the movement, and then try to figure out what could be going on inside the box. We encouraged them to draw or write down their ideas, and share and discuss with each other.

We were definitely surprised by the gusto with which the monks took to the challenge. Their observation were methodical, precise, and varied, even creative (for example, it was not uncommon for them to hold up the box to their ear to try and determine, from the sound of the mechanism, whether there were gears involved or not). They made very well-thought-out drawings and schematics of possible mechanisms, and then defended their ideas with each other with great vigor.

Coming up with a model
Using his hands to model gears

Investigating with all senses

Then it was time for them to come up to the front of the room, if they thought they had a good idea about a specific mechanism, and tell everybody what they thought. This almost invariably caused a smattering of responses from the other monks, and often one of them would immediately jump up to the from, snatch the example out of the first monk's hands, and proceed to provide evidence that disproved his theory.

In general, the monks found up-and-down movements much easier to conceptualize than rotational movements, and in particular example number 4, in which the cam follower moved back and forth in alternating clockwise and counterclockwise direction, while also bopping up and down, gave them major headaches. No matter, they made valiant efforts by hypothesizing cone-shaped gears, as well as rubber band mechanisms.

Sharing ideas

A lively discussion

Number 4 was relly quite difficult

Pretty sure he's got it

Two competing models

Finally, we let them open up the boxes to find out how we had actually constructed the mechanisms. One of our favorite moments do far was this, because the joy and marvel of seeing inside the boxes was so apparent. A certain indication of the level of investment that the activity had generated with them: we saw some of them take photos of the actual mechanism for their own records!

That's how you did it!

Eventually, we moved on to the next phase, which we were both eagerly anticipating, and were uncertain about at the same time: we told the monks that they would have to start building their own cardboard automata. This took us all of yesterday and today, and we will complete construction tomorrow.

Once again, our expectations were met and surpassed by these amazing individuals, who started building wonderful and delightful contraptions, depicting everything from prayer wheels wishing perpetual peace on earth, monkeys holding a "save animals" sign, to bucking bulls, helicopters, and birds of prey attacking a snake. The imagination and resourcefulness of the groups really shined, but in the decorations they chose to depict, and in the variety and creativity of mechanisms they designed. Some had to change their goals, and modify either their initial mechanism design, or the narrative they were trying to build on top of that, but did so without outwardly signs of frustration. In fact, the monks seem so impervious to becoming frustrated that it became something of a facilitation challenge for us, because we are so used to being able to detect when participants are becoming frustrated beyond a "healthy" point, so that we can intervene.

It's hard to describe the joy and wholeheartedness the monks immersed themselves in what must have been a strange and unfamiliar activity (and things are only going to get weirder!), so I hope that a few photographs will do a better job of communicating that.

Figuring it out together
Cutting his first cam
Making a bull

Googly eyes
DrillingWire lashing

Two prayer wheels
Decorating his prayer wheel

Bird of prey

Little Monk
May peace prevail 4 ever

Save animals

Making a box
Free Tibet


Auspicious beginnings

Prayer flags

Having survived our first night in India outside of the safe and familiar confines of a western-style hotel, yesterday marked the official beginning of the workshops. After the communal breakfast (and all meals are, indeed, communal) Geshe Lhakdor lead the monks in what he told us would be "a few auspicious prayers".

We were a bit unprepared for the official tone of the proceedings, and found ourselves sitting at the front of the room we'll be using, together with Geshe Lhakdor, Mark St. John, Bryce Johnson, and the vice-chancellor of the Institute, facing a room full of monks. After a few short words, they launched into a long and beautiful chant, and if everything else hadn't already convinced us, we knew we weren't in Kansas anymore right then!

After the chants, Geshe Lhakdor spoke for a while. We didn't understand what was being said, as it was in Tibetan, but when later asked, the Geshe told us that his message essentially boiled down to this: you (the monks) have to find the confidence to take what you learn in these workshops, and go back to your monasteries and become teachers and leaders for other monks. Monks teaching monks is the future he envisions.

The task of introducing the workshops and the significance of what we are going to do fell on Mark's shoulders. He did an amazing job, framing the proceedings within the concept of what he called the "three legs of the stool" of science.

One leg is the content of science, the knowledge we acquire that help us decipher and understand the world around us better.

Another leg is the process of science, the method and practices by which we come to gain the knowledge. This is, at its core, a process of inquiry.

Finally, there is the empowerment that comes from science, both on a personal level, and when it comes to benefiting society and humanity at large.

These three legs are equally important, and just like in a stool, they have to be approximately of the same length, or the whole construction is unstable.

Geshe Lhakdor concluded the proceedings by recalling that, when the monks did a lengthy workshop about color investigation, they started calling themselves the "color monks". Therefore, he said, they should now call themselves the "tripod monks"!

The ceremony was lovely, but it also made us a little uneasy, as it seemed very formal, and the monks very serious. A big component of our work is playfulness, and a sense of fun, and we were a little concerned that this audience would not take to that aspect of the activities we have planned.

Tea breakSweet tea

We had some time after tea break (which happen frequently; the monks appear to be addicted to tea!) and before lunch, so we took a rickshaw ride (after dutifully suppressing our western reservations about being driven around by another human being) to the old Stupa. Some photos will give a better description of the place than many words would.

Rickshaw rideAt the stupa

Karen and Lhakdor walking to the StupaFloating offerings

Gold leafPrayer shawls

GoldPlaying with the stupa

In the afternoon, it was time for us to give an introduction about the Exploratorium, and ourselves. This was our first time having to navigate the sometimes difficult task of communicating in a way that is simple enough to be unambiguously translated, yet not "dumbed down". This meant that we had to plan what we were going to say much more carefully than we normally would under such circumstances, and hopefully we didn't come off as being too formal. Then we opened up to questions from the monks.

We had been warned about this: nobody seemed to be willing to be the first to ask a question. After a lengthy pause, the most senior geshe (teacher) asked the first question. Surprisingly, it was a question about neuroscience. Many others followed after the ice had been broken, and we found that the monks are supremely interested in the subject: do we have exhibit to investigate the brain? How about imaging? How can one understand the workings of the brain by dissecting a dead sheep's brain? Can we learn things while asleep or under anesthesia? And so forth...

After an initial barrage about the brain, the questions started shifting toward the museum, and the monks were very curious and thoughtful in their questions: where does our money come from? How many visitors do we get? What ages? How do we deal with kids running around, don't our exhibit break? Do we make scientific discoveries? Do we present scientific discoveries?

Most of all they had very pointed questions about our philosophy of not giving the visitor very detailed and in-depth explanations of the phenomena that are being presented, but rather letting them find a path of discovery of their own. It seems that many of the monks are not yet sold on the idea that doing inquiry is a good way of finding things out about the world, rather than being told what is true and what is not.

Of course we hope to give them some evidence that inquiry is valuable by doing lots of it today and in the days to follow. After having had real interactions with the monks, albeit in the still rather formal format of a question and answer session, we realize that they are not as serious as they had seemed that morning. They respond to humor, laugh at themselves and the world around them, and have a lively and shrewd curiosity about the world. I think they will be very fun to work with!

Mike setting upScience leadership institue


Flavors of Sarnath

After a rather gruelling trip, we are finally in Sarnath! We spent a total of about 30 hours either on a plane or sitting in an airport, with a brief but pleasant few hours of sleep in Delhi in between. Once in Varanasi, Geshe Lhakdor, the Institute's Librarian, was very kind to meet us at the airport and arrange for transportation to the Center of Higher Tibetan Studies.

We were immediately treated to a delicious lunch, followed by sweet tea, and as conversation and jokes flowed easily between everyone, a feeling that the workshops would go well settled on us. Also, the suitcases we had packed with all the materials we would need for 10 days of PIE-style tinkering all arrived safely, so that helped!

The enclosure containing the Center is quite lovely, and architecturally very different than the rest of the town. The following pictures should give you an idea of the flavor of both the Tibetan encampment, and the Indian sprawling dwellings just outside. As always, what will be missing is the sounds and smells of the place, which truly fill the senses.

Our rooms